Three-and-a-half years ago, I received a call from Duke admissions telling me that I’d gotten off the waitlist. Duke was better than my other options in nearly every way. I might have accepted on the spot, but I was nervous. I had come out as a sophomore in high school, and I wanted to go to a college where I didn’t have to worry about my sexuality. Before I enrolled, I scoured the Internet for some hint about Duke’s LGBT life. I was surprised to discover that Duke has had a rather dynamic history: In 1999, the Princeton Review labeled Duke one of the most homophobic schools, but seven years later Duke turned around and was ranked one of the friendliest schools for LGBT students by The Advocate College Guide for LGBT Students. I reached out to some LGBT Duke students who were active on Facebook and asked for their perspective. They all assured me that Duke was a great place to be LGBT.
In my first month here, I doubted my decision. Coming to Duke felt like a step back from Houston, although I had a hard time understanding why. I don’t think I was blasé about coming out—I just felt like I was always entertaining straight people with the novel saliency of my experience. I’d also heard in early meetings with administrators that homophobia was the most prevalent form of physical and verbal discrimination on campus. I’d been harassed before, but no one had ever bothered me in school, so I had a hard time believing that students were doing this. It didn’t take long for that perspective to change.
On Halloween night of my first year, a friend of mine got into a fight with two other students. As I wrenched my friend away, one of the other students pushed me to the ground and hissed, “You f---ing f----t.” I left the fight (with my friend) shell-shocked. No one had ever called me a f----t before. I tried to forget about it and decided it was an isolated incident.
But the harassment continued. In Spring of my first year, I was kicked out of a section party after kissing a boy. I was told the party was invite-only, and I asked why none of the other uninvited guests were being asked to leave. I left the party humiliated, so embarrassed that I never told anyone about it. And then, on the last day of classes, a student paintballed the LGBT flag hanging from my window. Before Duke, I had never felt the need to celebrate LGBT pride with a flag. But after months of incidents, I felt compelled to support a cause I had previously taken for granted. I reported the vandalism, partly because I wanted a resolution, partly because it was so much easier to report when I didn’t know who the perpetrator was. No one was ever charged.
Harassment directed at me has diminished, probably because I’ve mostly stopped going to parties. You stop wanting to go out after endless nights of disquiet. But I know the harassment toward others hasn’t ceased. I’ve seen students get slammed with homophobia on the website Collegiate ACB. Gay friends of mine have been shoved when they’ve kissed their partners at Shooters. And most of all, we are mocked whenever we say something slightly effeminate. It’s incredibly jarring whenever someone repeats something I’ve just said back to me in a high-pitched voice. I’d rather be shoved any day than be mocked for someone’s entertainment.
LGBT harassment is still the most prevalent form of physical discrimination on campus. In addition to the harassment, I rarely feel like I have a student mentor to look up to on these issues. There are few out LGBT individuals in positions of leadership. Some of the LGBT individuals who hold positions of influence stay silent, and relegate their identity to rumored whispers. That’s the unfortunate thing about being gay—you either own it or you don’t. You can’t change your skin color, and it’s hard to hide your sex. But you can hide your sexual orientation. And it takes some damn courage to be out on this campus.
Like a lot of gays, I don’t want to talk about it. I’m tired of being the representative for something that I’ve been reduced to. I’m politically moderate, so I often ask myself, “When did I become so gay?” Maybe Duke is changing me, and maybe that’s a good thing. But I can’t help but wonder what life would be like on this campus if I were straight.
Patrick Oathout, DSG executive vice president, is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Patrick on Twitter @patrickoathout.